In case you haven’t noticed, public trust that the news media — ALL NEWS MEDIA — will deliver the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is at its lowest level in history.
According to the most recent Gallup Poll, only 32 percent of Americans have confidence that the press is reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly — and that was BEFORE the 2016 presidential election that most media outlets had, early on, called in favor of Hillary Clinton. The election results were simply the most embarrassingly visible validation of the public’s distrust (See, Martha, I told you they were nothing but a bunch of liars).
Faith in the media has actually been declining since way back before Donald Trump’s comings and goings were a one-line throwaway item on Page Six of the New York Post, and it’s not likely to be restored any time soon.
Alberto Ibargüen is working on a solution that he strongly believes will eventually stop “the demise of the consistently reliable bulk of straight news that used to be delivered and fed to the middle of our society, so that people, whether from left or right could find common ground.”
If anyone can make it possible for people to believe what they read, hear and watch again, it’s Alberto Ibargüen.
He’s the president, CEO and trustee of the prestigious John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, whose mission, in large part, is to invest in journalism so as to foster informed and engaged communities that are essential for a healthy democracy.
On Thursday, May 18, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Ibargüen will, for perhaps the first time, elaborate on his foundation’s multi-million dollar digital effort to restore authenticity to the news field, at a forum sponsored by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and its Latino Endowment Fund. The discussion will take place at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Avenue.
“I’m a very lucky guy,” he says. “I get to give away money for a living and, if I don’t give away enough of it, the IRS charges my employer a penalty. My Puerto Rican mother would say, ‘That’s nice,’ and my Cuban father would say, ‘That’s Communism.’
Although the ultimate answer to fixing journalism is still a long way off, Ibargüen says he is amazed at the new technological advances that his foundation has helped to develop already, including very early forms of artificial intelligence that can check the authenticity of news. It is precisely that need for authenticity — having the public say that it has to have information it can trust — that will drive the increased use of artificial intelligence and ultimately fix journalism.
“I’m a prisoner of hope, not an optimist,” he says. “A prisoner of hope says the odds are stacked against us; I don’t see how we can see our way through this; and yet I still think that we’re going to get by.”
Ibargüen takes issue with those who try to excuse the chaos in the media as a mere reflection of the increasingly polarized state of American society.
“I think in this case, the news media led the change. First, when we went to lots of cable news that felt more like opinion as if it were news; and then, ultimately, with the kind of free-for-all that you have on the web.”
A graduate of Wesleyan University, where he earned with a degree in Modern European History and edited the student newspaper, The Arbus, Ibargüen, likens the current state of journalism to the Reformation after Gutenberg.
“Before Gutenberg, the monks illuminated and copied The Bible. The cardinal would come by an put his imprimatur on it and said, ‘You can believe this. This is the truth.’ The cardinal was the editor. Then comes this crazy German and mechanizes the Chinese printing press and all hell breaks loose, because any Tom, Dick or Martin Luther could print whatever they wanted. And for 100 years, you couldn’t tell what was true and what was not true.
“I think that’s the kind of period we’re in now and our job is to hold things together until we can figure out what is a consistently reliable method of informing community, so that people can make intelligent choices.”
Then, when asked his thoughts on the mainstream media’s coverage of the financial collapse of Puerto Rico, Ibargüen hastens to add that when people talk about record-breaking distrust of the media, they’re actually talking about a relatively new phenomenon: the distrust of mainstream media by mainstream people.
“If you ask communities of color, there has always been a skepticism of mainstream media in the way that the issues of communities of color have been covered,” he said. “And that has everything to do with workplace diversity. The only times that I’ve seen where communities of color are covered as ‘us’, and not as ‘look what those people did’, have been where the newsroom was, in fact, diverse and inclusive.
“So how can we be surprised that when this story (Puerto Rico) is being told — because by and large, it’s being ignored — in terms of ‘Look what’s happening over there’ . . . Do you suppose that if Kansas was going bankrupt, we wouldn’t be reading about it every day in mainstream U.S. media?”
Ibargüen cited the Orlando Sentinel as one of the few exceptions to the general disregard for news about the crisis in Puerto Rico among mainstream media outlets.
“Why? Because the Orlando Sentinel has a bunch of Puerto Rican readers and they care about the story and, very importantly, they have Puerto Ricans in the newsroom,” he said. “The goal has to be to make anybody pick up the paper and say, ‘I’m reading about my community’, and you can’t do that unless you have a really diverse newsroom, where all points of view actually find their way into the reporting.”
Ibargüen’s presentation at the Bushnell is, in many ways a homecoming for him, as his roots in Hartford are long and deep.
Armed with his degree from Wesleyan, he joined the Peace Corps, for whom he spent two years in the Amazon jungle and two more years as a training officer in Bogota, Colombia. He then earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and one of the freshly minted attorney’s first jobs is to start the Legal Aid Society’s Puerto Rican Center for Justice in Hartford. From there, he went on to become the first Executive Director of the newly formed Connecticut state Elections Commission, created in the early 1970s as part of the passage of new campaign finance laws. When he left the commission, Ibargüen partnered with prominent attorney, businessman and political figure Sanford Cloud to form the law firm of Cloud & Ibargüen and later practiced with Peter Kelly at Updike, Kelly and Spellacy. Then he got a call from the Hartford Courant, offering to name him senior vice president, and in very short order, the Courant’s parent company, at the time, moved him to its larger newspaper, Newsday, in Long Island, NY. He remained for about 12 years, until the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain named him publisher of, first, El Nuevo Herald, then the Miami Herald, where he so distinguished himself (three Pulitzer Prizes, nearly 25 percent profit, and turning the Herald into the paper of record for Latin America), that 11 years ago, the Knight family asked him to be president of their foundation.
Hartford is also the place where Ibargüen and his wife, Susana, lived for many years; where his son, Diego, was born; and where Diego, a first-amendment attorney for Hearst Communications, attended Trinity College.
Ironically, the Puerto Rican Center for Justice, which was located in a tenement building that he and his wife restored on their own in the Clay-Arsenal section of Hartford, was funded by the Legal Aid Society with a grant from The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, whose Latino Endowment Fund is hosting Ibargüen’s talk.
“I hope they feel they made a good investment,” he said of the Foundation.
To register for the event: http://www.hfpg.org/donors/join-giving-circle/lef/conversation-alberto-ibarguen-may-18-bushnell/
RSVP at www.hfpg.org/events and enter code: LEFRECEPTION
Please RSVP no later than May 11, 2017* For Questions, please e-mail LEFReception@hfpg.org or call 860-548-1888 X1036